Hackney Empire’s artistic director has taken aim at the “pathetic” pace of change around representation in British theatre, as he reveals his plans to champion the venue as a driver for more diverse future talent and audiences.
Yamin Choudury, who took over the artistic directorship of the east London venue last year, argued that a stigma around community work and a lack of meaningful audience development in the industry “means potential future creatives aren’t being warmed up” for careers in theatre.
“Leaders and creatives in the arts and culture space in the UK are becoming more diverse and more representative, but the pace at which that is being allowed to happen is still pathetic. There’s no doubt of that,” he told The Stage.
“As the creative arts comes more out of the curriculum, which is just absolute lunacy anyway, we are seeing more of the same gene pool able to enter the sector and able to share their voices and experiences, [meaning] the same amount of represented creatives are just drip feeding through because we’re not seeing talent development on a major level,” he said.
Choudury, who has worked at Hackney Empire since 2003, credits it with “changing [his] life” when he was introduced to it as a teenager from a community in which “not even 0.01%” went to the theatre.
He took over the venue’s leadership last year, alongside executive director Jo Hemmant, following the departure of Susie McKenna, who ran the building for seven years.
Hackney Empire’s youth engagement programme, Creative Futures, has recently been rebranded and extended into a year-round scheme, intended to remove barriers to training and attendance for young people.
Among Choudury’s ambitions for the venue is to embed its community and outreach programmes at the heart of its operation. Choudury claimed the industry attaches a “stigma” to community work, which he wants to break free of.
“You rarely see community work performed or spoken about in the same conversations as main-house programming… It is still far too small a group of organisations that are embarking on that work in a meaningful way,” he said, pledging to improve the visibility and profile of community programmes that he hopes in turn will introduce new audiences to its shows.
Choudury argued that the majority of theatre still appeals only to “a really small core group and demographic of theatregoers”, for whom the market is now saturated, but claimed that celebrating Hackney Empire’s position as variety house will help encourage new audiences.
He said he wants it to be “at the sharp end of the spear head” in prompting sector-wide change around how art forms like music and comedy can help new audiences transition into attending theatre.
“I feel very strongly that places like Hackney Empire have an obligation to diversify the genetics of theatregoers and the sense of entitlement that comes with buying a ticket and going to the theatre, as opposed to the cinema.
“Why is that such a different experience? Other than the price point, and that’s not a good enough reason. Why aren’t we seeing more crossover between those two groups?”
Under Choudury and Hemmant’s leadership, Hackney Empire is introducing £5 tickets in addition to its existing £10 ticket scheme, for both of which he said he will actively target the communities and organisations which would benefit most.